Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Philippians ii. 12, 13.
To the man who seriously reflects on his spiritual character, on his condition as a candidate for immortality, the important inquiry will frequently occur--How am I to attain the salvation of my soul? In this momentous concern, am I to rely solely on my own endeavours? or are my own endeavours to be entirely superseded by the efficacious grace of God? My text resolves these inquiries--"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure."
The concurrence of human agency with divine grace is the important doctrine here established.
On this doctrine the following views may be presented:
1. There are two opposite opinions on the subject of human agency and divine grace, which are both erroneous.
2. The correct doctrine embraces a portion of both these opinions.
3. This doctrine is perfectly agreeable to reason, and may be vindicated from all objections.
4. Its practical influence is highly important.
 1. On the subject of human agency and divine grace in the work of salvation there are two opposite opinions, and both erroneous.
The first opinion ascribes every thing to human agency, and discards divine grace.
The advocates of this opinion lay the foundation of their reasonings in support of it, in the nature of virtue. In what consists, say they, the essence of human virtue, but in the free choice of the human will? If man is irresistibly impelled by some superior power to a certain course of action, where is its merit or demerit? If he is thus bound by the iron chains of necessity, where is his freedom? And if controlled in his choice, where is his virtue? To be capable of merit or demerit--to be the subject of reward or punishment--man must be perfectly free; he must be the master of his own actions--free to refuse the good, or to choose the evil. In the work of his salvation he therefore must freely determine for himself, and must be controlled by no superior power; or he becomes a mere machine, incapable of virtue, unworthy of reward, and not justly obnoxious to punishment. Thus far the advocates for human agency argue correctly. Their reasonings are founded on the constitution of the human mind--on the immutable nature of virtue which exists only in free agents capable of determining their own actions--and on the nature of rewards and punishments which are applicable only to those who, impelled by no resistless impulse, have chosen the good, or pursued the evil. But when the advocates of human agency in the work of salvation advance farther--when they attribute to man that native clearness of perception which, without any superior illumination, [224/225] discerns in every case the nature and excellence of divine truth, and the nice and correct suggestions of duty--when they attribute to man that strength of will which enables him, unassisted by supernatural aids, to subdue the corrupt passions of his heart, and to resist the temptations of the world--they advance an opinion unscriptural, irrational, and contrary to universal experience. This doctrine, which attributes the exclusive agency to man in the work of his salvation, is one of the erroneous extremes on this subject. And that it is thus erroneous will appear, if we follow, as far as their legitimate reasoning extends, the advocates of the other extreme--of the doctrine of the resistless power of divine grace.
Is not man, say the advocates of this doctrine, a corrupt being? Do not the proofs of this corruption appear in the prevalence of his sinful propensities--in the ease and frequency with which temptation seduces him into sin--in the long series of crimes which darken his history--and in all the institutions of civil society which, remotely or immediately, are founded on human imperfection and depravity? And is it possible, say they, that a depraved creature, the very essence of whose depravity consists in the ardour with which he cherishes it, can rise, prompted by no superior impulse, to the exalted heights of virtue, or, unassisted, maintain his high station? Is not man, say they, a dependent being? and if his bodily health and his temporal mercies come from an almighty hand, is it not reasonable to conclude that his spiritual health and his eternal mercies must boast of a divine origin? If man can work out his salvation independently of supernatural aid, where is the [225/226] humility of the creature? where the glory of the Creator? Thus far the advocates of divine grace reason correctly. Their tenets are supported by the nature of man, by his relation to his Creator, and by the characteristic property of the plan of salvation--its being founded on grace, not on the claims of merit. Thus far every man, who has experienced either the power of his sinful passions, or has made any progress in subduing them, will bear testimony to their doctrine, and cherish it as fruitful both of virtue and consolation. But when the advocates of this important doctrine of divine grace push their tenets further; when they maintain, that so totally impotent is man, that he possesses, of himself, no power to cherish the influences of the Divine Spirit--so deeply depraved, that no native impulse to goodness warms his heart; when they maintain that the grace of God can never be arrested, nor finally quenched--that, on the contrary, by its irresistable power it infallibly conducts the person, once the subject of it, to final glory, while those who, by the decree of God, are destitute of it, infallibly fall into perdition--they equally oppose Scripture, common experience, common sense, and all the benevolent feelings of the heart: they make virtue, as it respects man, but a name--rewards and punishments arbitrary edicts: they transform man, who was created in the divine image, into a fiend irreversibly bound by the fetters of sin: they transform God, who, in his word, his works, and his ways, proclaims himself to be love, into a being swayed by passions that in man would constitute an odious tyrant.
In the middle point between opposite opinions, the luminous path of truth frequently appears. [226/227] Certainly, in, the present case, according to the second view of the subject which was laid down,
2. The correct doctrine embraces a portion of both these opposite opinions.
We have seen that, to a certain extent, each of them has legitimate claims to truth. Human agency must be so far maintained as to preserve man's freedom and virtue, and to make this virtue capable of rewards and punishments: human agency must be so far exerted as to prevent man from becoming a machine, moved by the irresistable force of motives, as effectually as a piece of mechanism is set in motion by a physical impetus: human agency must be so far maintained as to make man guilty in freely rejecting proffered grace, and thus to remove the imputation of his destruction from the God who made him. On the other hand, the agency of divine grace must be so far maintained as to ascribe to this grace the power in man to think and to do whatsoever is pleasing to God--his sanctification, his progress in holiness, his conquest over temptation, and his final exaltation to glory. Less than this we cannot attribute to divine agency, when not resisted, leading man from grace to grace, until he arrive at the final state of perfect holiness, without being guilty of the impiety of making man his own saviour, of ascribing, in man's salvation, that glory to the creature which is due only to the infinite Creator.
Human co-operation with divine grace is the opinion which embraces whatever portion of truth exists in the extremes; and this is the unequivocal and uniform doctrine of the Bible; and which only gives clearness, consistency, and force to its declarations. [227/228] What mean those numerous exhortations to sinners:--Wash you, make you clean: put from you your evil doings; make you a clean heart and right spirit--Cease to do evil; learn to do well--Bring forth fruits meet for repentance--Give all diligence to make your calling and election sure? What mean those cautions:--See that ye receive not the grace of God in vain--Harden not your hearts--Quench not the Spirit--Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall? What means the holy circumspection of the apostle:--I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away? What mean the promises and threats, the rewards and punishments which lie at the basis of all the divine dispensations? All these, with the whole strain of Scripture, imply, beyond contradiction, that human agency must be exerted in the work of salvation; that man is free to reject the Spirit of God, or to cherish his gracious influences; and that this grace must be cherished, must be improved, or it will only tend to his condemnation; and the greatest saint, even after having preached unto others, may be a cast away.
On the other hand, divine grace is necessary to the sanctification of man, to his establishment in holiness, and to his final perseverance in the Christian life. To this point how explicit are the declarations: I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes--Ye are sanctified by the Spirit of God--Ye are saved by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost--Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves, but our [228/229] sufficiency is of God--The Spirit helpeth our infirmities--It is God who giveth the increase! Here the doctrine of divine grace, as the primary agent in the work of salvation, is plainly revealed. How then are we to reconcile human agency and divine grace? The apostle has determined this point in the words of the text. Both are to be preserved. We are to work out our salvation; for it is God that worketh in us. Our own exertions must co-operate with his grace. His Holy Spirit enlightens, renews, sanctifies, the heart--gives us the victory over temptation, leads us in the way of his law and in the works of his commandments. But if we resist and grieve his Holy Spirit, we may provoke him to take it from us. If we do not work out our salvation, God will not effectually work in us. The truth then on this important point is clear--We can do nothing effectually but by the preventing, assisting, and sanctifying grace of God; but, favoured as we are by his gracious influences, unless we make constant and vigorous exertions ourselves, we shall have received the grace of God in vain.
3. This doctrine of the co-operation of human agency with divine grace, thus expressly established in Scripture, is perfectly agreeable to reason, and may be vindicated from all objections.
On the one hand, consciousness assures every man that he is a free agent; that he may do or not do as he pleases; that, in regard to his volitions and his actions, no irresistable force impels or controls him. This free agency is essential to a moral and accountable creature; reason, therefore, can never relinquish it; she can never admit any [229/230] doctrine which, by destroying the free agency of man, would destroy the morality of his actions, and his accountableness to the God who made him. Nor is she required to relinquish the free agency of man, by the word of God; for we have seen that, throughout the inspired volume, God deals with man as a free agent; as such, warns and invites him, threatens and promises him; as such, places before him the good and the evil--choose ye which ye will serve.
But, on the other hand, consciousness and experience also impress on every man the truth, that his free agency is impaired--that his sinful propensities are strong--the temptations of the world powerful; and the work of salvation is therefore eminently arduous. What then is the immediate suggestion of reason? That man needs supernatural help. What is the immediate impulse of his heart? To fly, in this his weak and helpless state, to that Almighty Being on whom he is dependent, imploring his succour. There is nothing therefore in the doctrine, that man in the work of salvation must be assisted by divine grace, which is not perfectly agreeable to the dictates of unprejudiced reason, and to the natural suggestions of the heart. To oppose this doctrine, because we are unable to comprehend the mode by which the Divine Spirit operates upon our minds, would be irrational, would be contrary to the dictates of sound philosophy. How many facts does the philosopher admit, for which he is utterly unable to account! How many things there are in the constant observation of every man which he seeks in vain to comprehend! The nature of his own mind, the nature of the bodies around him, the reasons why they are thus [230/231] constituted, are all inscrutable. In temporal things, man's knowledge is confined solely to facts: the moment he attempts to explain their remote and real causes, he becomes lost--he feels his ignorance, his weakness. Is it then wonderful or irrational that he should be unable to comprehend spiritual things? Here, as in temporal matters, he knows facts: all beyond is covered with impenetrable mystery. The fact that the Divine Spirit does operate upon our minds, is sufficient as a rule of our conduct and a source of consolation. The mode by which his operations take place is incomprehensible, and certainly, for any practical purpose, is not necessary to be known.
But if divine grace alone be efficacious in salvation, what then becomes of man's free agency? If man is by nature so weak and corrupt as to be unable by his own powers to resist temptation, and to work out his salvation, how can he be guilty, how can he be obnoxious to punishment? We answer:--Divine grace, so far from destroying man's free agency, perfects it. Weakened by the fall, divine grace repairs it. God, by his Holy Spirit, suggests to us good thoughts, puts into our minds good desires, applies to them the most persuasive and powerful motives, gives us strength to determine, to act; but, when thus prompted, urged, strengthened, the way in which we may act, and the choice which we may make, depend solely upon ourselves. We may do "despite unto God's Spirit," we may "resist" it, we may quench it, and thus receiving the grace of God in vain, bring on ourselves swift destruction; or, on the contrary, following its blessed guidance, we may be led into all [231/232] truth, sanctified in soul and body, and have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.
It is the rejection of the grace that enables him to work out his salvation, which constitutes the guilt of man and exposes him to punishment. No absolute decree, no imputation of another's sin, can make man guilty, or justly obnoxious to eternal misery: guilt implies actual, voluntary transgression, which it was in the power of the offender to avoid. Accordingly the Scriptures declare, that man is to be judged only for the "deeds done in the body." "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."
It is the unsearchable will of God to make this life a state of discipline, in which we are to be made perfect through suffering; he has therefore permitted the sin of Adam to entail on his posterity a corrupt nature, suffering, and death. But coextensive with the effects of the sin of the first Adam, is the atonement of the second Adam, the man Christ Jesus, the Lord our righteousness. Through his merits and grace all men, though by nature children of wrath, possessing propensities deserving of God's displeasure, are put into a state of salvation in which their future destiny depends upon themselves--upon the improvement which they make of the grace given to them. This is agreeable to the reasoning of the apostle--"As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Thus is the justice of God cleared of every imputation. All men are made free by grace to discern, and are made free through grace to perform, the things that are pleasing to God; and [232/233] according to the proportion of light and grace which they have received will they be judged: of those to whom much is given, will much be required; and of those to whom little is given, will little be required. Thus is the doctrine of the necessity of grace in the work of salvation freed from every difficulty, made perfectly compatible with the moral agency and accountableness of man, and with the attributes of that Judge of all the earth who hath declared that he will do right, and that he is not a hard Master, reaping where he has not sown, and gathering where he has not strawed.
But do we, by the doctrine of human co-operation, make void divine grace? God forbid! We rather magnify the same. What is the doctrine of the church? "Man, by his own natural strength, cannot prepare himself for good works and calling upon God;" it is "the grace of God in Christ working in him a good will, and working with him when he has a good will." Thus does the grace of God begin the spiritual life, preserve it in every stage, and finally bring it to perfection. Is not this magnifying the grace of God? But is this grace resistless? Does this grace do every thing? No; mark the cautious expression of the article of the church which has just been quoted: the grace of God works with man; man works, but to render his working effectual, the grace of God must co-operate with him. What is this but the doctrine of human co-operation with divine grace? What is this but the language of St. Paul--Work out your salvation, for it is God that worketh in you? To maintain that this grace is irresistable--that it is the sole agent in the work of salvation, would be contrary to the express tenour of Scripture. So far from [233/234] magnifying divine grace, it would degrade it, making it destructive to man's freedom, to his virtue, and to all the moral attributes of God. It is impious to ascribe to this wise and just Being the inconsistency of making man a moral and accountable agent, and yet of controlling him by an irresistable power. The advocates of this doctrine, and not of human co-operation with divine agency, detract from the glory of God. It is this latter doctrine only which gives consistency and beauty to all the divine dispensations; which displays the Deity in the most interesting of all possible characters, the merciful Ruler of moral and accountable creatures, the righteous Rewarder of them who diligently seek him.
We are now prepared for the
4. Last view of this subject--The practical influence of the doctrine of the concurrence of human agency with divine grace in the work of salvation.
Its practical influence is to keep us from distrust on the one hand, and presumption on the other; and to lead us diligently, earnestly, and zealously to work out our salvation. Were we left entirely to ourselves in this important concern, to the blindness of our, own reason and the weakness of our own resolution, well might we exclaim--Who is sufficient for these things? We should sink in hopeless despondency. On the other hand, were we taught that the grace of God is to do all; that this grace is resistless; and that, when it seizes us, it will infallibly save us; we should be elevated to the dangerous extreme of presumptuous security. But when we are taught that, though God works in us, we are also to work, while with fear [234/235] and trembling, considering our own weakness, and the possibility, by neglecting divine grace, of falling short of our salvation--we are preserved from presumption; confiding in the almighty power of Him who works in us according to his good, his merciful and gracious pleasure, we are saved from distrust.
Behold then, brethren, the highly momentous force of the apostolic injunction--"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." God infinite, eternal, almighty--he is our helper: by his power he works in us both to will and to do. But we hold this grace, without which we can do nothing, at the good pleasure of his will: he has declared, that if we resist his grace, and do despite unto his Spirit, he will take it from us; that, if we hear not his voice, but harden our hearts, he will swear in his wrath that we shall not enter into his rest. Let us then, with "fear and trembling" lest we forfeit his grace, "work out our salvation;" let us "give all diligence to make our calling and election sure;" faithfully using all the means of grace--the worship and ordinances of the sanctuary, frequent and humble prayer: let us daily, hourly, constantly strive to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, to mortify our evil tempers, to subdue our sinful habits, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; to keep a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man; to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. At the same time let us remember, that we are enabled thus diligently to work out our salvation only by the preventing and [235/236] quickening grace of God; and that the pardon of our sins and the glories of heaven--blessings to which by nature we can lay no title--are the free gifts of his mercy, through Jesus Christ. Let us then, when we have done all, acknowledge that we are unprofitable servants--"Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory." "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." And that God would thus work in us, and enable us to work, let us beseech him in the language of the church:--"Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will, through Jesus Christ our Lord." "Lord, we pray thee, that thy grace may always prevent and follow us; and make us continually to be given to all good works, through Jesus Christ our Lord."